How Norfolk’s ‘vile’ prison improved inmates’ lives for good

Opening again on Monday June 21 and what a story it has to tell. Picture: Wymondham Heritage Museum

Opening again on Monday June 21 and what a story it has to tell - Credit: Wymondham Heritage Museum

It was a house of cruelty and misery but what happened in this Norfolk gaol led the way for prisoners across this country and America to be treated with some respect and care. 

Today it is home to the Wymondham Heritage Museum. A wonderful place to visit which is steeped in history – what a story it has to tell and one we can all share now the doors are opening again on Monday.

It was in 1553 when one of Henry VIII’s palaces was converted into a House of Correction to deal with vagrants. It was known as “Bridewell Palace” because it was near to the Holy Well of St bride in London.

And as other houses of correction were built, they too were called “Bridewells.”

The first Bridewell in Wymondham dates from 1619 when the basement of an old medieval house, on the site of the existing Bridewell, was used as a dungeon where prisoners were kept in chains in darkness.

John howard. Picture: Wymondham Heritage Museum

John Howard - Credit: Wymondham Heritage Museum


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More than a century on we meet John Howard who was born in London in 1726. A man of considerable wealth who travelled widely on the continent before becoming the High Sheriff of Bedfordshire and among his responsibilities was Bedford Gaol.

When John inspected it, he was appalled at the conditions and shocked at that only money jailers got were fees from the prisoners and that they were kept in after serving their sentence because they hadn’t paid for their release.

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Howard persuaded the House of Commons to pass two acts that stipulated first that discharged persons be freed in open court, fees be abolished and justices be required to see to the health of prisoners.

Not satisfied that his recommendations were being carried out he set off across Europe – at his own expense – searching for a humane prison system for English gaols to follow.

The Courtyard Garden once the exercise yard. Picture: Wymondham Heritage Museum

The Courtyard Garden, once the exercise yard - Credit: Wymondham Heritage Museum

Then in 1779 he visited Wymondham’s Bridewell. He described it as “one of the vilest prisons in England.”

He put forward recommendations which led to the building of a new Wymondham Bridewell following the design of Sir Thomas Beevor who was well known in the town and chairman of the magistrates.

Sir Thomas produced the first set of rules for the best management of prisons.

Built in 1785 to John Howard’s standards, the “new model prison” in The Bridewell opened with new wings containing seven or eight cells in each and a workhouse on the ground floor. A stair case led to women’s cells with a workroom, infirmary, scullery and toilet.

Each prisoner had his or her own cell and men and women were kept apart from each other.

Reform rather than repression was the guiding principle of the new prison in Wymondham and these more humane prisons were built across this country and in America.

In 1810, the Bridewell was extended to provide a home for the prison governor and additional facilities. It closed 15 years later but reopened as the Norfolk Women’s Penitentiary in 1832.

The women prisoners ran a laundry and washing was hung on lines in the old exercise yard, now the museum’s courtyard garden. A 1995 excavation of the yard revealed the original dungeon floor, which is now on public view.

Each prisoner had been given a New Testament. They tore pages from their bibles and stitched them together in pairs to made them thicker, probably with thread they spirited away from their sewing duties.

Using charcoal for clubs and it is thought, blood for hearts and diamonds, they fashioned a pack of playing cards. Suring renovations in 1994 the pack was found tucked in a window frame. They are now on display in the museum.

Today visitors to the museum can see the steps that John Howard descended to inspect the dungeons, a recreation of the dungeon and ankle chains from the original plus an original cell doors dating from 1810.

What a history this building has. A prison (1785-1878), a police station (1850-1963) and a court-house (1879-1992).

The Bridewell then became derelict until Wymondham Heritage Society bought it with the aid of grants from Norfolk County Council in 1994.

Two years later the Duke of Gloucester officially opened Wymondham Heritage Museum and the Bridewell complex.

The Howard League for Penal Reform was established in 1866 and is named after John Howard. It is the oldest penal reform charity in the UK. www.howardleague.org

With thanks to Neil Haverson.

Wymondham Heritage Museum, The Bridewell, on Norwich Road is opened daily from 1pm to 4pm and the tea-room is open from Monday to Friday. For all the details click on www.wymondhamheritagemuseum.co.uk

The Crank, an instrument of torture at the Wymondham Bridewell. Picture: Wymondham Heritage Museum

The Crank, an instrument of torture at the Wymondham Bridewell - Credit: Wymondham Heritage Museum

An instrument of torture

The first crank was introduced into prisons around 1830. A non-productive form of hard labour consisting of a set of paddles on a central spindle. Filled with sand it is

hard work turning the handle.

Prisoners had to turn it 1,800 times to earn breakfast, 4,500 for a midday meal and 5,400 for supper, with another 2,700 times after that.

If they didn’t manage it, they went hungry.

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